Get Management Advice From an Unlikely Source

Maybe it’s the English major in me, but over the years I’ve derived more practical wisdom and guidance from the world’s great works of literature than from self-help, career and management advice books. I’m an employment counselor by vocation. I’m no snob — I glean words to live and work by wherever I find them. Quotatious by habit, I happily cite everyone from Anonymous to Zig Ziglar.

Apparently, I’m not alone. A recent article in the New York Times identifies a trend for business-book authors to “look for management lessons almost anywhere but in the business world itself.” It cites as examples “Peanut Butter and Jelly Management” (Amacom, 2000) by Chris and Reina Komisarjevsky, a married couple who raised nine kids, and “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” (Viking, 2001) by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

There are also numerous books by ex-coaches and athletes. Among the recent titles: “Dugout Days: Untold Tales and Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Career of Billy Martin” (Amacom, 2001) by Michael DeMarco; “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior” (Hyperion, 1994) by Phil Jackson, and “Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the 20th Century’s Greatest Winner” (Penguin, 2001) by Bill Russell.

As one who looks to literature for inspiration and edification, American writer Henry James stands out for me as a source for sage counsel. You remember him, author of “Daisy Miller,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Bostonians” and “The Portrait of a Lady,” among other great literary works. What differentiates Mr. James, who died in 1916, from today’s best-selling authors is that Mr. James expresses penetrating psychological truths and does so well and memorably.

What follows are some of my favorite quotations from Mr. James and how I find them applicable to the world of work.

“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

From an essay, “The Art of Fiction,” this line is one of his most quoted. Though written with the artist in mind, it’s a goal worthy of us all. How comprehensive is your field of vision? How much of your experience, which Mr. James describes as the “very atmosphere of the mind,” do you regularly use to the fullest? Of the dozens of daily interactions with your colleagues and customers, how much do you notice, learn from and retain?

“I call people rich when they are able to gratify their imagination.”

For too many Americans, the ultimate measure of success is one’s paycheck and its purchasing power. Consider instead this more inclusive definition of wealth from “The Portrait of a Lady.” It has a liberating effect. If you’ve always wanted to learn a second language or to play a musical instrument, and then you do, you’re rich. If your fantasy involves getting your work published, and you succeed, you’re rich. To be truly wealthy, you must realize your dreams, no matter how seemingly small or personal they might be.

“I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”

Even though regrets are inevitable, keeping them to a minimum throughout a long career and life is important to one’s happiness. Many people can relate to Mr. James’s misgiving expressed here in a letter to the English novelist Sir Hugh Walpole. When regrets do take hold, it’s usually for roads not taken and experiences not sought, rather than the other way around. We tend to become more risk-averse as we take on more responsibilities.

“To take what there is, and use it, without waiting in vain for the preconceived — to dig deep into the actual and get something out of that — this doubtless is the right way to live.”

During the course of a career, sometimes we find ourselves working in positions that we come to dislike or outgrow. When this happens, it isn’t long before our productivity suffers and our attention shifts to the next job, be it real or imagined. Gradually we resign mentally. Why not, as Mr. James recommends in this passage from his notebook, regroup and recommit to the work at hand? If we are realistic and patient, and don’t divide our energy and attention, another opportunity is sure to come. New-age gurus call this living in the present moment.

Surely, if the lessons found in Mr. James’s works were taken to heart, he, too, would rank among America’s top management gurus.

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